I’m fairly resilient emotionally and psychologically, which is why the effect that Friday night’s sponsored sleep out had on me came as such a shock.
I was prepared for the physical strain and had little expectation of actual sleep. I knew that, without a tent or other camping luxuries, it was going to be the coldest night I had ever experienced (including that ill advised February weekend at a camp site in Essex). I was’t even certain that I had the physical endurance to make it through the whole night but I was going to bloody well try. Despite my best endeavours to prepare, including so many layers of clothes that I couldn’t bend down, it lived up to expectations.
What I wasn’t prepared for though was the emotional and psychological effect.
The night started well enough with lots of laughter and friendly chat. At 11 o’clock we had a visit from the Mayor of Milton Keynes, Derek Eastman, who wandered around among the 30 of us gathered for the night, chatting and occasionally agreeing to selfie requests. While he was there, the Manager and staff of the Jaipur Indian Restaurant (whose land and toilets we had kindly been given permission to use) brought out a cheque for £300, representing £10 for each of us taking part. More selfies and a group photograph. They also came back a few minutes later and handed out poppadoms. I think at that point Mr Jaipur became everybody’s favourite person.
Things were obviously going too well because just as we were about to get into our sleeping bags it started to rain: only a few spots but it was decided better to move then than to be woken up by rain and have to do it later. Fortunately, the Council had given permission for us to use a nearby underpass in the event of rain so we all gathered up our bags and bedding and carried them the 100 yards or so to the underpass.
The hard ground and bright lights made sleep seem even less likely than it had before but, as I hadn’t really expected much anyway that was ok. On the plus side the underpass was significantly warmer. Optimistically, we all climbed into our sleeping bags and bedded down for the night.
After half an hour of battling with cramp in my feet, I gave in and took my shoes off. I tried again. Some people were already asleep while others were chatting quietly. Despite my expectations, I drifted off to sleep.
Then came the part I wasn’t prepared for.
At just after 2 o’clock I became aware that the temperature had dropped significantly. I tried to curl into a small ball and bring my whole body, head and all, into the sleeping bag. This helped to deal with the cold but it meant that I couldn’t see what was going on around me. Sleeping in an underpass in the middle of a major town, not being able to see was not a comfortable situation. I felt vulnerable. I eventually settled on a compromise, wrapping my scarf over my head and covering everything from my eyes down. I slept a little more.
At about 3 o’clock I woke up again. It was so quiet. Most people were still asleep and, although I was sure that some were awake, they, like me, were lying quietly in their own small part of the underpass. There was no sound of traffic, everything had stopped. Despite having 29 other people in relatively close proximity, I felt incredibly isolated and alone. It was still achingly cold and my surroundings were dismal: harsh light and a constant whiff of cigarette butts (which I suppose could have been worse). I didn’t really know why but I felt like crying.
I woke up several times, sometimes because somebody was walking through the underpass and sometimes for no particular reason that I could tell. Each time I woke I checked my watch to see how long it would be until it was all over. I woke up at about 5.15 and sat up, quite a few other people were doing the same and I think we were all awake and pouring the dregs from our flasks by about 5.30. Not many people were brave enough to leave the warmth of their sleeping bags for a while. We left the underpass at about 6 o’clock and headed for home, and bed.
For most of the day I was left feeling quite depressed, and a little bit angry. Even something as simple as going shopping for dinner was a huge chore and the decision of what to buy seemed like something of a ‘First World Problem’ that I couldn’t really be bothered to think about.
The thing is, I’m not somebody who cries about my problems. I set out to find a solution; I fight. I shout about things that I think need changing. I don’t give up. I’m certainly not defeatist
That’s why my reaction frightened me. It made me realise that, if I ever found myself sleeping on the streets out of necessity, my usual resilience would almost certainly desert me, quickly. If one night left me feeling hopeless and wanting to cry, what would the prospect of forever do to me?
Fortunately, I’m back to myself now … and I’ve seen something that is wrong, that needs changing. So I’m going to shout about it and I make no apology for that.
There are two things you can do:
In the short term it’s not too late to sponsor me to help keep the Winter Night Shelter going for another winter. This will give those with nowhere of their own to sleep some breathing space at least, nights when they don’t have to face the loneliness and hopelessness of sleeping on the street. They might even be one of the lucky ones who is helped into long term accommodation.